Yoga critics announce run for Encinitas school board


Critics of Encinitas’ school yoga program are challenging two incumbents for a pair of seats on the Encinitas Union School Board, arguing that the board needs to be more responsive to parents’ spending priorities.

Encinitas parents Anne-Katherine Pingree and Leslie Schneider have announced their intent to run against incumbents Carol Skiljan and Patricia Sinay. The two challengers have been active in protests against the school board’s recent decision to pay for yoga instruction in Encinitas schools.

A third parent, Rimga Viskanta, is also running.

In June, the board approved spending $416,000 for a health and wellness program centered on yoga practice, as part of the district’s 2016-17 budget. That amount was scaled back from the $800,000 that Superintendent Tim Baird initially wanted to spend on district-wide yoga instruction, after losing grant funding that previously paid for the program.

The decision to devote school funding to yoga infuriated many parents, who said they must raise money constantly to pay for services including science, art, music and physical education instruction. District money would be better spent on those programs, or on class size reductions, rather than yoga, they said.

A petition drew 940 signatures against the yoga spending, and about 70 parents and students protested the funding decision outside a school board meeting on the issue.

District officials maintained the wellness program was important to student health and performance, and described the 2016-17 funding as “bridge money” until additional grants could be obtained.

The board also agreed to devote an additional $384,000 toward other enrichment programs, but some parents said that they lost confidence in district leadership. That spurred several to seek office in order to change the course of school spending.

“In spite of overwhelming opposition from parents and community members in our district, the school board voted to spend close to half a million dollars on one non-academic enrichment program,” Pingree said in an email to the San Diego Union-Tribune. “To me, this is about responsible use of public funds. There are a lot of great enrichment programs out there, but academics must be funded first.”

Pingree, a mother of four children who have attended district schools, has lived in Encinitas for 13 years. She holds an undergraduate degree in political science and certification as a secondary teacher, and earned master’s degrees in industrial and labor relations and public administration, both from Cornell University, she said in the email. She later worked in human resource management.

She has served for two terms as a PTA board member at El Camino Creek Elementary School and for four years on the school site council, and volunteers to help with classroom activities and art education at the campus.

If elected, she said, she would emphasize spending on “core academic areas such as science, math, reading, writing and technology,” and reducing class sizes. She also said she would work to increase public input and access to information.

Schneider has lived in Encinitas for 18 years, and has two children enrolled in the Encinitas Union School District. She holds an undergraduate degree in business administration and communications and is a small business owner, she said. She volunteers for Camp Pendleton family services and with the YMCA’s homeless youth outreach.

Schneider has been involved in efforts to persuade the school board to vote against funding the yoga program and said she takes issue with “spending on a lot of extras that don’t directly support core curriculum.”

Her goal, she said, is to “hold the board accountable for every dollar they spend – is it supporting core curriculum or is it an extra that we do not need?”

Viskanta is the mother of three children who have attended Encinitas schools. She serves as PTA president at Ocean Knoll Elementary, and also sat on the district’s bond oversight committee.

She received a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California, focusing on government budgeting and finance, and worked for the cities of Manhattan Beach and Solana Beach, as well as working as a financial consultant, she said.

Although she shared concerns about spending on yoga instruction, she said that issue didn’t prompt her to run for the school board.

“I just feel like this is a natural extension of my current involvement,” she said.

As the daughter of parents who emigrated from Lithuania, she said she’s also interested in increasing services to English learners.

“I’d like to see if the district can do more to support those families and help with their academic success,” she said.

Sinay was appointed to the board in January 2015, when former board member Mo Muir was elected to the San Dieguito Union School District board. Sinay, a native of Mexico, is the mother of two children who are enrolled in the district’s dual language immersion program in Spanish.

She has worked on international development and community issues for organizations including the San Diego Foundation, she said. She holds a master’s degree from American University and now runs a nonprofit consulting business.

“My focus has always been about engaging the community,” she said. “With that came the idea that for people to really get ahead and break the cycles of poverty, the importance of quality education for everybody.”

Skiljan could not be reached for comment. The district website describes her as a 39-year resident of Encinitas, whose two daughters attended the district’s schools. She was elected in 1992, and is executive director of the nonprofit San Diego Chapter of Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program.

— Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune